The Montreal Canadiens faced one of the teams with a legitimate chance to come out of the Eastern Conference on Thursday night, playing an excellent game against the Washington Capitals, controlling the play, but ultimately coming up just short in a 3-2 loss that sent the visitors to the top of the Metropolitan Division.
At the bottom of that group sits the Carolina Hurricanes. In the bottom fifth in goals against, and second-last in goals against and both special teams categories, they have that standing for good reason. A similar effort to what the Canadiens put forward two days prior would have been more than enough to secure two points and get back in the win column.
Unfortunately, that wasn't the mindset of the Montreal Canadiens, who once again displayed their tendency to dial down their play just a bit too far when going up against the league's bottom-feeders.
That lowered effort didn't apply to Daniel Carr, who was making his NHL debut. He exhibited the hard work that we recently highlighted; the determination that helped him become a top offensive prospect in the organization.
On his first shift less than three minutes into the game, Carr drove to the front of the crease, and was in perfect position to retrieve a loose puck at the side of the net. He wrapped it around the back of the goal and tucked it in just between the post and Cam Ward's pad to score his first NHL goal on his first NHL shot.
Carr went on to fire two more shots on goal in his 8:21 time on ice, and finished on the positive side of the possession battle, with the sixth-highest five-versus-five shot-attempts-for percentage among all forwards, at 57.9%. This while receiving a team-low 40% of his end-zone shifts in the offensive zone in a fourth-line role.
The lead lasted just over 10 minutes, erased when Eric Staal whipped a pass from behind the net to the top of the crease. Mike Condon anticipated a quick shot, and was beaten when Jeff Skinner took the puck farther to the side and flipped it into the net right as a tripping penalty to Lars Eller came to an end.
The first period was a fairly equal affair, with each team having moments of sustained pressure in their attacking end, so a deadlock after 20 minutes was a fair representation of the play that had taken place, though the Canadiens did finish with about a minute of power play time to carry over to the second.
In that time, Montreal had several good shots, but were unable to capitalize, and failed to get much traction at all in a man-advantage opportunity a few minutes later.
Just past the midway mark of the period however, it was another rookie's turn to go to the prime scoring area, as Sven Andrighetto posted up right in front of the net. Jeff Petry, bringing the puck down along the boards, sent a perfect pass to the goal mouth, and Andrighetto netted his third goal of the season in his seventh game, surpassing the total he achieved in a 12-game call-up last season.
Carolina got the goal right back at the end of lengthy period of sustained pressure against David Desharnais' line and a defensive duo of Alexei Emelin and P.K. Subban. Joakim Nordstrom eventually got in behind the defence and was able to pounce on a short rebound given up by Condon.
The goal energized the Hurricanes, as they went on to control the play for the next fifteen minutes of the game, and the Canadiens exacerbated the situation with undisciplined, unnecessary penalties from Desharnais and Subban in that time.
Eric Staal appeared to have scored the go-ahead goal after stumbling into Montreal's netminder after a push from Subban. The play was initially reviewed, and deemed to be a good goal, despite the video showing Staal's glove propelling the puck into the net. I have to wonder if the reviewers were expecting a coach's challenge for goaltender interference and didn't bother to evaluate all possible evidence to overturn the goal, especially after the nine-minute review that had taken place earlier in the day.
Nevertheless, Michel Therrien did use his challenge, and it was determined that Staal had prevented Condon from making the save, and replays showed that Staal had actually altered his path after Subban's push to veer into the crease.
Down a goal, Therrien broke out his line blender, or Rosterizer as I call it. Or perhaps it was actually his Recombobulator, as one of his crafted trios ended up being the old standby of Desharnais centring Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann. The reunited line ended up controlling the play on their first shift of the game and got the Canadiens their first offensive pressure in several minutes.
The change in momentum was short-lived, as Staal had another great chance later in the frame, but Mike Condon threw his glove behind him and knocked the puck off the trajectory that would have taken it into the net.
For being the second-worst power play in the league, Carolina's five-on-four units looked dangerous all night, and, after scoring right as their first power play had come to an end, Skinner was left unmarked at the side of the net, and batted in a waist-high rebound just seconds into their final man advantage chance with about seven-and-a-half minutes remaining in the third period.
Awarded a power play of their own after Staal's frustrating night continued with a flip of the puck over the glass, the Habs' first wave consisted of Max Pacioretty, Desharnais, and Weise, and they created little in the way of a chance to tie the game.
Condon was pulled for the second minute of the power play, and Tomas Plekanec, Alex Galchenyuk, Eller, and Pacioretty had several good shots on goal, but were unable to beat Cam Ward, and ended up with a 3-2 loss; their second consecutive defeat by that score.
Several times in the last few games, Nathan Beaulieu and Alex Galchenyuk have misplayed pucks on clearing attempts, passes, and shots. Both of these players have recently been given elevated roles (Beaulieu has been playing on the second pairing, while Galchenyuk has made the shift to centre) and seem to be rushing their plays with the puck. As they grow more comfortable with their roles, their time with the puck on their sticks should become much more composed.
After scoring at least three regulation goals in their first nine games of the season, the Canadiens have now failed to score more than two such goals in five consecutive games.
That means Mike Condon has to allow no more than two goals just to get his team one point at the end of regulation, and that is an unfair requirement to give a rookie backup goaltender. His rebound control has been a source of consternation for Habs fans, and his attempts at lateral motion seem to have a vertical vector that takes him just as far out of his net as they do toward the posts.
These are all things that can be covered with more attention to the defensive aspects of the game. Two of last night's goals were scored by players left alone at the goal mouth to score on rebounds. If the Canadiens are going to keep winning without Carey Price, the defensive zone coverage will need to adjust to the fact that they don't currently have their elite rebound-controller in net.
The Canadiens will have some time to work on adjustments to their defensive-zone coverage. Their next game takes place on Wednesday night, when they welcome the resurgent Boston Bruins into the Bell Centre.